“Why I love the Holy Father”: I’m not sure those are words I would’ve typed 17 years ago. You see, back then I was an Evangelical Protestant dating a super cute Catholic boy. Loving the Holy Father wasn’t really on my radar back then. To be perfectly honest, I had a pretty ambivalent relationship about the Pope. I was Switzerland, in a way. I loved that he was so steadfast in his beliefs but I couldn’t quite grasp why Catholics loved him so very much.
That very cute Catholic boy and I trotted off to the altar and I converted an hour before our rehearsal dinner. It wasn’t until three years later, when we moved and became involved in high school youth ministry as volunteer youth ministers, that I got to know the Holy Father and his role within the church.
I was so misinformed, y’all. This is coming from the gal who thought that every Pope was named John Paul II. Yes, I really did think that. I asked Scott, “So, how do you keep all the John Paul II’s straight?” Oh man, you should’ve seen his face.
Our youth group went on pilgrimage to Italy with 20 teenagers and we had the awesome honor of seeing him SEVEN times in two weeks. How does that even happen? Our first sighting was during a Papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. Before he arrived, you could feel the electricity in the air. I still wasn’t convinced. I mean, I was excited, but I wasn’t even sure why. To be clear, this was just a 75ish, white-haired, Polish guy who had some charisma, right?
Then, I spotted the Popemobile out of the corner of my eye. It’s difficult to transcribe the emotions that went through my heart. It was…awe, maybe? I think the best way to describe it is to envision the holiest living person you know. The one person who makes you want to be your best self. The person you never want to disappoint. Perhaps slightly cliche to say, but I really did feel like I was in the presence of someone so holy, so loving, so awesome, so human, that I could hardly stand it. A few days later we participated in the Eucharistic procession. Typically, the Holy Father prays the entire way. Or not. This photo was taken just as he passed us. I tear up every time I see it.
When Pope John Paul II died, it was devastating. Yes, I had seen him suffer, but to lose the only Pope I’d ever known, it was a sad, sad day. I wasn’t entirely sure I could love another Pope the way I loved and admired JPII.
And then I went and did it anyway.
In 2009, when I was pregnant with our fifth child, Scott accompanied a group of donors to Rome. When he sent me this photo, I wept at my computer. Look at that JOY. Being the Vicar of Christ is no easy task, but Pope Benedict XVI has done it with such humility and grace. Make no mistake, he is no John Paul II. But JPII was no Pope Benedict XVI. Each served the people in the way they needed to be shepherded. I love them both, and what they represent, very much.
As Catholics, we believe the Pope is more than just the leader of more than a billion Catholics worldwide. No, he’s not Christ, but he is our shepherd. The Papacy began with St. Peter, the original Vicar of Christ, and that chain has remained intact for the 264 popes who followed him. In just a few short weeks, the College of Cardinals will elect the 266th Pope. No doubt, it will be a day filled with joy. But, as that man is elected Pope only one other living being understands the great cross he will now bear.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
John Paul II showed us the sanctity of life as he lived his last days in suffering. As Pope Benedict XVI lives his final days in monastic life, his example of God’s will and mercy is not lost on me.
While I cry today, as we say goodbye to an extraordinary man, a gentle leader and a faithful servant of God, I know those tears will be ones of joy in just a few short weeks. You’re loved, Holy Father.